The India-China Territorial Dispute

In an article entitled “Warning to the Indian Government” (posted on the website of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies on March 26, 2008), Zhan Liu, a Communist Party member, warns India not to “walk today along the old road of resisting China” as the People’s Liberation Army is now well-entrenched in Tibet and will not repeat its mistake of withdrawing after a border war as it did in 1962. He extols the virtues of the PLA’s newly developed capabilities and goes on to advise India “not to requite kindness with ingratitude.” This surprisingly sharp attack in a scholarly journal was not an isolated piece of writing. 

In the wake of the recent Tibetan unrest in India and across the world, anti-India rhetoric in the Chinese media has been ratcheted up several notches. This could not have happened without the express sanction of the Chinese authorities as scholars and media persons in China are not known to have ever expressed personal views. In the light of China’s strident claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang recently, it emerges clearly that the Chinese Government has consciously decided to raise the ante on the territorial and boundary dispute with India while simultaneously engaging India on other fronts.

Political and economic relations between India and China are much better now that these have been since the 1962 war. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly every year, with bilateral trade increasing at a brisk pace. Bilateral trade is expected to cross US $40 billion well before the projected period of 2009-10. However, despite prolonged negotiations at the political level to resolve the outstanding territorial and boundary dispute between the two countries, there has been little progress on this sensitive issue. The security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler in the larger relationship and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains.
 
China continues to be in occupation of large areas of Indian territory. In Aksai Chin in Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. China built its alternative route from Tibet to Sinkiang through this part of Aksai Chin. In addition, in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in the Shaksgam Valley of the Northern Areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (north of the Siachen Glacier and west of the Karakoram Pass) to China under a boundary agreement that India does not recognise. Through this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Sinkiang, Tibet and Pakistan. 

In the northeast, China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. Sun Yuxi, the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi, had publicly reiterated this claim in a not too diplomatic manner before President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006. Since then, Chinese interlocutors have claimed several times that the Tawang Tract is part of Tibet because one of the Dalai Lamas was born there. China’s concern for the religious sensibilities of the Tibetan people is indeed touching, especially when it routinely engages in the malicious vilification of the living Dalai Lama. Chinese scholars visiting New Delhi always hint that the merger of the Tawang Tract with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s often stated official position on such issues is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty.

An inherently destabilising situation stems from the omission that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, implying de facto control after the 1962 war, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The LAC is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km long boundary between India and Tibet. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as patrol face-offs are common and could result in an armed clash. Incidents such as the Nathu La border clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung standoff of 1986 can recur. Such incidents have the potential to escalate into another border conflict similar to the war of 1962. The only positive development has been that after over a dozen meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, maps showing the respective versions of the two armies have been exchanged for the least contentious Central Sector, that is, the Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet where no fighting had taken place in 1962. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is. 

Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the five-decade old dispute. Many foreign policy analysts hailed it as a great leap forward. Three years down the line, the two countries are still stuck with the principles and a solution is nowhere in sight. This is not the first time that India has signed a “feel-good” agreement with the Chinese. The Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) signed with the Chinese in 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field signed in 1996 were expected to reduce the operational commitments of the army from having to permanently man the difficult LAC with China. However, it has not been possible to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far. 

In fact, despite the 1996 agreement, several incidents of Chinese intrusions at Asaphi La and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh have been periodically reported in the press and discussed in Parliament. While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face in areas like the two “fish-tail” shaped protrusions in the north-east corner of Arunachal Pradesh. Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and despite the best of military training the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. An armed clash in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.

In the western sector in Ladakh, the LAC is even more ambiguous because the paucity of easily recognisable terrain features on the Aksai Chin makes it difficult to accurately co-relate ground and map. Both the sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which, in their perception, the LAC runs. These patrols leave “tell-tale” signs behind in the form of burjis (piles of stones), biscuit and cigarette packets and other similar markers in a sort of primitive ritual to lay stake to territory and assert their claim. While the government invariably advises caution, it is extremely difficult for commanders of troops to advocate a soft line to their subordinates. 

There is an inherent contradiction in sending soldiers to patrol what they are told and believe are Indian areas and then telling them that they must not under any circumstances fire on “intruding” Chinese soldiers. This is the reason why it is operationally critical to demarcate the LAC on the ground and map. Once that is done, the inadequacy of recognisable terrain features can be overcome by exploiting GPS technology to accurately navigate up to the agreed and well-defined LAC on the ground and avoid transgressing it even unintentionally. 

In this light, the Chinese intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors, while talking of lofty guiding principles and parameters to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, is neither understandable nor condonable. It can only be classified as another attempt to put off resolution of the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily. Clearly, China’s negotiating strategy is to resolve the dispute when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms. 

It is in India’s interest to strive for an early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend with. India will then be able to re-deploy some of the mountain divisions of the army and a few squadrons of the Indian Air Force to its western border to gain a decisive military edge against Pakistan. India may even be able to consider ‘downsizing’ a few army divisions and utilise the savings for the qualitative upgradation of the army. It is in this direction that the Government of India must nudge the Chinese leadership during future diplomatic engagements.

Meanwhile, India is already a regional power and is an emerging global player. India must learn to handle power by exhibiting self assurance and standing up and being counted on major international issues. There is no need for the government to appease China – either on the issue of China’s brutal repression of the Tibetan people or on the resolution of the territorial dispute. India has done well to provide shelter to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees for 40 years. It must create some space for itself in dealing with the Chinese by allowing greater play to the Dalai Lama and his people. Simultaneously, India must develop the military infrastructure along the northern borders, substantially enhance its capability for trans-LAC offensive operations, operationalise the Agni-III ballistic missile and step up research and development for the Surya ICBM. China understands military might quite well and will soon take the hint.

(The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)